Confusion Bleeds from an Already Wounded U.S.-Turkish Alliance


Asked Thursday about imposing congressionally mandated sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense missile system, U.S. President Donald Trump told the press, “We’re not looking at that right now.” As his statement made its way into headlines around the world and the value of the Turkish lira rallied, he clarified, “We’re looking at it,” then concluded, “We’ll see what we do.”

The current crisis between the United States and Turkey is not about Trump. It stems from Turkey’s view that the United States now poses a fundamental threat to Turkish security, a view that itself reflects Turkish suspicions and U.S. policies going back years.

But as Washington considers how to respond to Ankara’s S-400 purchase, it is important to understand how the Trump administration’s misleading messaging has amplified Turkey’s misperceptions of the United States at every step. Recognizing how the president made an already impossible situation worse is the first step to mitigating the damage.

Over the past three years, Trump and his team have consistently undermined efforts by U.S. officials to explain the logic or necessity of policies that Ankara views as hostile. Moreover, Trump’s contradictory or conciliatory conversations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have helped convince Ankara it can pressure Washington into abandoning these policies. In short, the president has helped confirm both Turkey’s deepest fears about American behavior and its wildest hopes for changing it. The result? More provocative moves from Turkey and fewer good options to respond.

There are two policies in particular regularly cited by Turks as evidence of America’s sinister designs toward their country — both begun under President Barack Obama and ultimately continued by Trump. The first is Washington’s refusal to extradite Fetullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric whose followers were somehow involved in Turkey’s 2016 coup attempt. The second is Washington’s support, since 2014, for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militant group closely tied to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been at war with the Turkish state for decades. It is entirely understandable that Ankara would object to these policies and entirely understandable that Washington would pursue them anyway. As U.S. policymakers repeatedly tried to explain to their Turkish counterparts, U.S. law prevents even the president from ordering Gulen’s extradition without sufficient evidence. The People’s Protection Units, in turn, represented a necessary partner in the crucial struggle to defeat ISIL.

Enter team Trump. In the fall of 2016, Michael Flynn, Trump’s short-lived national security adviser, reportedly claimed that for the right price he could have Gulen delivered to Turkey. Whatever his plan for doing so, the result was to convince Ankara of what it already suspected: America basically worked like Turkey and “the rule of law” was just an excuse Washington was using to shelter Turkey’s enemy.

In December of 2018, Trump caught his own administration by surprise when he announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. The announcement came immediately after a conversation with Erdogan, in the context of repeated Turkish threats to attack the People’s Protection Units over the previous year. Trump then compounded the confusion caused by this sudden reversal of policy when he called, via Twitter, for the creation of a “20 mile safe zone” — without specifying whether this zone was intended to keep America’s Kurdish partners safe from Turkey or vice versa. At the time, many in Washington criticized Trump’s decision. And yet the damage was not undone when U.S. forces simply stayed in Syria without Trump formally reversing his decision or explaining what he had in mind. To the contrary, this only amplified Turkey’s suspicions: Why were U.S. troops staying after the president said ISIL had been defeated? Was the U.S. “deep state” — a concept with Turkish origins — really working to undermine Trump? And, amidst this confusion, could the threat of Turkish military action finally push Washington to withdraw its forces?

Now, with Turkey’s purchase of the S-400, this dysfunction is playing out in real time. The U.S. Congress, State Department, and the Pentagon have insisted that the delivery of Russian military equipment will automatically trigger sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. And yet Erdogan has been equally insistent in claiming that, based on his conversations with Trump, Ankara has nothing to worry about. Trump, he maintains, understands the importance of preserving Turkey’s friendship and will make the sanctions go away. As a result, Americans have been left uncertain over what Trump actually said to Erdogan and whether he might try to thwart Congress in favor of Turkey.

If Turkish leaders remain convinced that the United States is a bigger strategic threat than Russia, and behave accordingly, Ankara’s recent missile purchase will be the least of Washington’s problems. In the face of this conviction, no combination of U.S. threats, concessions or explanations to the contrary will be able to save the U.S.-Turkish alliance.

This makes properly managing an increasingly confrontational relationship with Turkey all the more important. To do so, Washington must at the very least find a way to present credible messages and maintain consistent policies.

First and foremost, having repeatedly declared that the purchase of the S-400s would be met with sanctions, Congress should ensure that this actually happens. Without going to the opposite extreme of recklessly pushing Turkey toward an economic crisis, congressional leaders should subsequently make it clear that the duration and scope of these sanctions will reflect Turkey’s future decisions about defense cooperation with Russia.

Consistency is needed elsewhere as well. Amidst continuing U.S.-Turkish negotiations over the future of Syria, policymakers should also be careful not to make commitments to the Syrian Kurdish leadership that the president is not committed to honoring. More precisely, pressing them to offer concessions to Turkey in return for continued U.S. backing, then leaving anyway, would be even more of a betrayal than simply leaving in the first place. The United States does not owe its partners a permanent presence in Syria, but it owes them a moderately competent policy process so they can make their plans accordingly.

Dealing with a former ally who has truly come to see America as a threat would be a nightmare for any president. Having reached this point, even the most effective messaging will not assuage Turkey’s suspicions. In time, Washington and Ankara may succeed in taking each other’s measure, so as to better keep bilateral tensions from escalating. The sooner Washington can figure out where Washington stands, the sooner Ankara might have to as well.


Nick Danforth is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He completed a PhD in Turkish history at Georgetown University and has written widely on Middle Eastern politics.

Image: White House